“Zero Tolerance Cruelty”: Separating Families at our Southern Border
Family Separation Has Significant Legal and Health Implications
When parents crossing the border are referred for criminal prosecution, they are forcibly separated from their children. Considered “unaccompanied” due to the separation, the children are placed into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ORR is then responsible for finding family members or foster families to care for the child. Separated family members often struggle to find each other, with some children or parents deported alone without information on how to reunite with the rest of their family. There is no process in place for the children to communicate with their parents, or for parents to receive information on where their children are being held. Additionally, when children are rendered unaccompanied, their legal cases are severed from their parents’, which causes significant problems when their claims are linked or related.
Medical professionals, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have condemned the practice of family separation, explaining that this “highly stressful experience . . . can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health.”
While the administration claims that only those families who illegally cross between ports of entry will be separated, families who follow the law and present themselves to border officials seeking their legal right to asylum have also been separated. For example:
- Mirian, a Honduran asylum seeker fleeing government persecution, presented at a port of entry in Brownsville, Texas with her 18-month-old son asking for protection. She presented several documents verifying their biological relationship, including his birth certificate. Despite this, she was forcibly separated from her son and sent to the Port Isabel Detention Center.
- Ms. G, a Mexican asylum seeker, presented at a port of entry in Nogales, Arizona with her blind six-year-old daughter and her four-year-old son. Ms. G presented documentation demonstrating her relationship to her children but was sent to the Eloy Detention Center while her children were sent into ORR custody.
- A Honduran mother detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center was forcibly separated from her one year and nine-month-old son earlier this year after they requested asylum at a port of entry. She did not learn where her son was being held for two weeks.
- A father, mother, and their 15-year-old daughter fled government threats in Venezuela in May 2017 and entered the United States near Presidio, Texas. Upon apprehension, the family handed border patrol agents U.S. forms requesting asylum. Despite their clear indication of an intent to seek asylum, border patrol separated the girl from her mother, placed her in a federal foster care center in El Paso, Texas, and referred her parents for criminal prosecution.
- A mother and her three young children fled El Salvador and crossed into the U.S. near El Paso, Texas. The mother told border patrol agents that she had received death threats from a gang and needed asylum. Although she presented the children’s birth certificates proving her relationship to them, immigration officials took her children away and placed them in federal foster care in New York. Agents then detained the mother and convicted her of illegal entry.